Between them, five men spent nearly a century inside a prison within a prison, California’s notorious Security Housing Unit (SHU). Isolated from contact with other inmates, they endured sensory deprivation, an unavoidable consequence of solitary confinement.
They didn’t commit any crimes in prison, nor did they violate any rules. All but one was serving a life term. Their charge: gang membership. That was reason enough under a previous California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) policy to confine them indefinitely inside the SHU.
After decades living under conditions harshly criticized nationally and internationally, SHU prisoners led hunger strikes in 2010, 2011 and 2013. The strikes, joined by many inmates throughout the CDCR, called attention to living conditions and mistreatment, which drew criticism from then-President Barack Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy regarding SHU-type confinement conditions nationwide. The strikes eventually attracted the attention and support of grassroots and human rights organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights.
A class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the prisoners to end their indefinite SHU confinement. The last hunger strike ended as a federal court stepped in. The CDCR eventually settled in September 2015. The CDCR secretary agreed to stop putting prisoners in isolation for indeterminate time periods, a housing placement designed to keep gang-affiliated inmates from associating with one another.
In the late 1980s, when the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison opened, no one outside the prison system questioned the placement policy or how these men lived from day to day. Rehabilitation wasn’t offered in the SHU. And after the end of indefinite solitary confinement as a policy, the former SHU inmates have dropped from sight. How do these men return to the general prison population or society after a combined 100 years of solitude?
At 27, Armando Flores had already served four years of a 15-years-to-life sentence for second degree murder. He settled into the prison routine and was on a regular contact visit with his then-girlfriend when they were interrupted abruptly by corrections officers. He was handcuffed and led away as his girlfriend stood crying.
It was 1989, and the super-max at Pelican Bay State Prison had just opened in Crescent City in the northwest corner of California. Flores was taken directly to the facility’s SHU for alleged gang membership, where he spent the next 26 years of his life in isolation.
“It rains a lot up there and it’s always cold, depending on the cell,” Flores said. When he entered the SHU, the majority of its custody staff were White men — “mountain people,” as he described them. They were aggressive and had one way of running things which created a hostile environment. They’d strip search him before allowing him to exercise, alone, on the yard.
Accessing the yard was like stepping from one box to another.
“I could take about four steps one way and 10 steps the other way and I’d already be turning,” Flores said.
On occasional two-hour visits from family, Flores was escorted to another box where he placed his hands through a slot in the door to have them uncuffed as his relatives looked on.
“It’s kind of humiliating,” he said. The short duration of time, however, discouraged his family from visiting.
The SHU cell Flores lived in 23 hours a day is larger than regular prison cells. Though slightly bigger than Flores was used to, the cell smelled like mildew because of the dampness from the nearby Pacific Ocean. The mental toll continued each year with no end in sight.
In 1986, at age 17, Isaac Rubio Flores (no relation to Armando Flores) was in juvenile lockup for second-degree murder. By 18, he was in county jail. “It was my birthday present,” he said. Of the 32 years he’s been imprisoned, 18 were spent in the SHU.
“Once you go there, you’re stuck,” he said. “I accepted that it was home.” From 2000 to 2014 he was in a single cell.
Isaac Flores challenged his SHU placement. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone beat it on a 602 (Inmate/Parolee Appeal) or habeas corpus,” he said. Eventually, he tried to take his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. “They didn’t want to hear it. But I took a shot.”
Once he was settled in, Isaac Flores still had to deal with life changes on the outside in a strange way. “Everybody knows when you go out for a phone call it’s a death, but they don’t know who died,” he said.
While in the SHU, Isaac Flores lost his mother to cancer in 2008, and his father in 2013. He said his mother visited often, but his father’s health precluded him from traveling to the prison from his home in San Jose so he only visited once.
He got to know other SHU inmates when he went to the recreation yard alone — they’d talk through a drain. “You never knew what they looked like, but you got to know them.” He said he wouldn’t spit in the drain out of respect for everyone else.
When it was time to transfer to another prison in Monterey County, Isaac Flores cleaned up. He didn’t want to leave anyone a dirty cell, out of respect. Once on the bus, all he did was look at cars. He searched for banks, remembering that some displayed the time and temperature. The ride took him through his hometown of San Jose — a place he hadn’t seen in years.
When he arrived at Salinas Valley State Prison with art supplies, an officer said, “They don’t make paper like this anymore.” The cells were freezing, so he used toilet paper and soap to cover the vent. His mattress had blood on it from an inmate who’d cut himself, so Flores threw it out and slept on the metal bunk for five days. It was all new to him.
“Imagine opening the cages to a zoo and all the animals run out,” he told his brother on the phone. “Everyone is just moving.” Looking back on his SHU experience he said, “Every day I’m on the mainline is a good day.”
Johnny Barra, 41, was in the SHU for an “indeterminate term,” as it turns out like a bunch of guys. He was in there for 20 years before his release into the general population. While there, he filed many administrative appeals (grievances) regarding his term. The appeals were denied by the prison administration. The courts were no help; constantly deferring to the prison in a kind of Catch-22 situation.
Prison officials told Barra the two ways to get out of Pelican Bay were to debrief — become an informant — or die. The third way out, parole, was unlikely for a lifer in the SHU.
The weird thing is Barra never served time in a general population of prisoners. He too went directly to Pelican Bay. “When I first got there, I didn’t understand the dynamics,” Barra said. “I was a little bit scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I was young.”
A lot of guys doing long bits in prison look disheveled. Not Barra. His shirts are usually clean and ironed; he shaves every day, and keeps himself fit. He carries himself with dignity and is respectful to everyone.
Who can say whether that’s how he was when he went in, or if that’s how he developed over years of living alone and trying to survive? “You’re deprived of so much,” he recalled. “For the first few years I read. Everything was on a mental level so I did stuff to keep my mind active. That’s how I adjusted.”
To keep busy, after sending his clothes to laundry, he’d rewash them with a bar of soap. He saw the world on television and began to appreciate it for the things he had taken for granted. Curiously, the scariest thing that could happen to a man living alone in the SHU is a phone call — a “courtesy call,” announcing a death in the family. He only got one, for his father. It lasted 10 minutes and afterward a counselor asked Barra if he wanted a chaplain. He didn’t.
Lots of other people died in the 20 years he was in Pelican Bay. “I lost all my aunts, uncles, dad, grandparents, cousins — about 12 to 14 relatives,” he said. “I lost three of my aunts within three months.” He learned of most deaths in his family through letters.
He did not receive visits while in the SHU. It was too much of a hardship for his family.
There were times he felt hopeless. “I didn’t think I was going to die there, but I thought I’d be there for the rest of my time,” he said. “They think when we come out the SHU we’re supposed to be dangerous.” He’s not, but said he has realized those places are meant to break you down.
Guss “Lumumba” Edwards, 59, was sent to prison in 1978 for murder and robbery. After serving 27 years, he was sent to Pelican Bay SHU’s “short corridor” in February 2005 where he remained for eight and a half years in a single-man cell. The Short Corridor was set aside for those suspected of being “shot-callers” in prison gangs.
“Entering the SHU was disheartening. I felt Pelican Bay SHU was the last stop,” Edwards said. “I felt as if I was living in a coffin and my destination was on a path that leads even lower into the ground. I felt there was no return to a civilized life.”
Writing was the only way for Edwards to maintain contact with the outside world after his wife moved to Florida, where her parents and family lived.
“I wouldn’t say we worked hard at maintaining a marriage,” he said. “We became friends when she moved.”
Like other survivors, Edwards exudes an all-too-familiar aura of pain in his face, a residual of struggling to maintain his sanity. “I’ve come to learn that isolation bears two recognizable features: One is introspection, the other is torture,” he said. “Isolation brings out the best in me and the worst in me.”
“In the course of the day, and every day, you learn to fight your dreams, real or imagined. Your survival strength and instincts kick in to keep you moving toward better days. It was always a constant struggle to obtain and keep peace of mind.”
Edwards said he was placed on a list to see a doctor, but not for psychological reasons. “I was placed on what they call chronic care, which means you would automatically be seen by a doctor every 90 days, no matter what your health condition was.” Those not on the list would have to fill out a medical form and hope they were called.
A visit to the doctor in the SHU was something out of the ordinary. “You would be handcuffed with waist chains connected to the handcuffs, with ankle chains on both ankles,” Edwards said. “Mainly because you’re never allowed to come in physical contact with absolutely no one.”
Occasionally, Edwards received visits from his family, but they were cheated out of time and only allowed an hour and a half. Even though the policy allotted two hours, staff included the time it took to get back to the cell. By the late ’90s, visits were extended to three hours.
Edwards suffered the loss of family members like many of his peers. “I lost my mother and father who came twice a year to visit me,” Edwards said. The news arrived in letters from siblings, and from his counselor. He was allowed to make a half-hour phone call home, but he had to pay for it. “That administration had no concerns in regards to my mental state when my love one had died,” he said. “Mainly because Pelican Bay was meant for serious punishment, nothing less.”
Edwards learned “how to mentally survive brutal conditions.” Now that he is out and at San Quentin, Edwards, a lifer with the possibility of parole, feels motivated to dive into self-help programs. “I now also know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Participating in these programs, somehow I now believe that light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train.”
These days, Edwards can be seen around San Quentin with the public information officer and other inmates answering questions from the many visitors that tour the prison.
Joe Loredo, 48, was sentenced to 13 years for conspiracy to kidnap with a firearm in 2004. He arrived in prison in 2005, bypassing the traditional reception and immediately sent to administrative segregation — the hole — and then to the SHU. He spent a little more than 11 years isolated.
Loredo was no stranger to the SHU program. He’d previously done time in Corcoran SHU and Pelican Bay. The first time was in 1995, then he paroled in ’97. He’s also done two other short stays in the Bay from 1998 to ’99 and 2000 to ’03.
“Being young, I was curious. I looked forward to going to the SHU because I looked up to older guys,” Loredo said. “That was my mindset. I was hard-headed. It didn’t dawn on me that every time I came to prison I would go to the SHU.”
He kept his sanity by playing chess, doing legal work, and reading self-help books. It was all about keeping busy. “I made projects like wind chimes,” using the foil from the inside of potato chip bags. He also made jewelry boxes, baby shoes, and boxing gloves. At one point, he made one jewelry box a week.
Pelican Bay didn’t offer Loredo education programs like the ones discovered once at San Quentin, where he later graduated from a Microsoft computer literacy class. “I never had this opportunity,” said Loredo, who did not grow up in the age of social media.
He also had to contend with the reality that others didn’t think change was possible for him. “We have these stereotypes that follow us out of the SHU,” Loredo said. Taking advantage of the programs at San Quentin, however, changed that. He said the officers see he’s not what the system made him out to be. “When they talk to you, they talk to you as a human being, not as an inmate. The counselors are the same way,” he said. “The look I give them is ‘I told you so.’ We’re demonstrating that we can change.”
“After 25 years of cell living (in and out of prison), they sent me to dorm living, which is a culture shock itself,” he said. “It took me about three weeks to get a good night sleep.”
As his parole date neared, he thought about how to use the skills he acquired to join a construction union. “My goal is to become a journeyman in construction. I would’ve never had this opportunity if I was still stuck in the SHU.”
Loredo’s release from the SHU allowed him to take advantage of the programs offered at San Quentin. “Coming from a program, you have a feeling of success, like you accomplished something,” he said. “Now I know I can be more of a help to my family because I got all these programs under my belt. Now I got hope. When I go to a job site I know what to do.”
For those still in the SHU, his advice is to “never give up hope.”
“I don’t regret the decisions I made, but if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t let my bad decisions (override) who I really am,” Loredo said.
Before paroling in early July 2017, Loredo completed the 12-week Prison to Employment Connection program where he learned interviewing techniques and how to put together a cover letter and resume.
“I appreciate what San Quentin has done for me and giving me the chance to open the eyes of others that are going through the same thing. We’re showing them we’re not the monsters they made us out to be.”
These men were given the opportunity to change at a prison that offers a variety of programs. But there are thousands of inmates who may follow the path they used to be on, simply because punishment can still trump rehabilitation in a system struggling to change in the face of politics, overcrowding, medical receivership, gangs and violence in the post tough-on-crime era.
Where are they now?
In January, the San Quentin administration notified the inmate population that it is providing statewide access to self-help programs to all medium-custody inmates, even those with serious mental health issues and ones classified to have special protective needs.
With the safety and security of the prison a priority, the officials responded to threats, attacks, and violence against the new arrivals.
According to the administration, Armando Flores, Johnny Barra, Isaac Flores, along with others were in positions of authority/influence to order attacks against the new arrivals. Through orders by the administration, the three were transferred from San Quentin.
Isaac Flores has since filed a grievance denying the allegations made by the administration.
Other inmates, who were released from the SHU and transferred from San Quentin, have filed similar grievances.
Last year, the parole board found Guss Edwards suitable for parole, and Joe Laredo reentered society.